The many wondrous health benefits breastfeeding provides for both mum and baby are well known. Knowing all the health benefits it is a wonder someone hasn’t tried to bottle it up, yet an exact formulation cannot be done because a mother’s breast milk is changing all the time to match the needs of her baby. A new study found that the ever changing breast milk composition can even adapt to help a baby’s intestinal flora.
Human milk oligosaccharides (HMO) are a major component of breast milk, even greater in concentration than protein, yet their function in infants has not been clearly understood. The new University of Illinois study found that the HMO produce short chain fatty acids that feed beneficial bacteria in baby’s gut and the authors note that HMO are a key component to understanding how breastfeeding benefits babies.
The news doesn’t stop there as researchers also found that the bacterial composition adjusts as the baby grows older and his needs change. Dubbed the fiber of human milk, humans do not have an enzyme to break down HMO so it passes to the large intestine where bacteria break it down. This is similar to other complex starches in the food supply known as prebiotics which feed the healthy or the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut.
Beneficial bacteria strengthen the immune system helping it fend off chronic health problems like asthma and food allergies. Researchers note it has been documented that the gut flora of formula fed versus breastfed babies is different, and for the first time study authors have identified that a complex mixture of HMO and a single HMO component produce patterns of short chain fatty acids that change as the baby gets older.
These fatty acids provide a fuel sources for beneficial bacteria in the gut, as well as effecting gastrointestinal development and pH which ultimately reduces the number of disease causing pathogens. Food sources of prebiotics include fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains but are often lacking in a diet comprised of processed foods. Some companies can actually manufacture HMO, which may be used to boost infant formula in the future. The authors conclude that HMO can actually bind to receptors on immune cells, a feature no current prebiotic ingredient can do.